President Biden’s COVID-19 Executive Orders Explained

Photo credit Gage Skidmore.


January 25, 2020

In his first two days in office, newly-inaugurated President Joe Biden signed a stack of executive orders (EO) on COVID-19. The mainstream media coverage of the EOs implied that these changes would immediately help in the fight to eradicate COVID-19, but if you actually read the EOs, some seem more about studying our COVID-19 response so that we can make improvements in the future, rather than making an instant change. Orders signed would:

  • Require mask-wearing and social distancing by anybody inside Federal buildings, lands, or properties, “with the goal of maximizing public compliance” with mask mandates and other COVID-19 measures “across America.”
  • Require mask-wearing in airports, planes, trains, boats and ferries, public buses, and any other public transportation managed by any Federal agency (i.e. by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), etc.). Before President Biden took office, all U.S. airlines already had mask policies on their planes and the vast majority of public transportation services across the country already had strict mask requirements.
  • “To the extent feasible,” require international travelers to prove that they have recently tested negative for COVID-19. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) already required this for travelers from the UK starting December 27, 2020. Before this EO, people traveling from Europe, China, and several other areas were required to isolate for 14 days before entering the U.S.
  • Direct Federal agencies to assess the feasibility of requiring international travelers to show certificates as proof of COVID-19 vaccination.
  • Create a COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force that will make public health recommendations on how “to advance equity” in distribution of resources and COVID-19 care. Federal COVID-19 response plans will be altered according to the Task Force’s recommendations. It’s common sense, however, that distribution of COVID-19 resources should be based strictly on where there is the greatest need for resources. Basing distribution of resources on anything else spells danger for our hardest hit and most vulnerable populations, particularly anybody over the age of 65.
  • Provide “evidence-based guidance” to places of elementary, secondary, and higher education to help schools decide “whether and how to reopen, and how to remain open, for in-person learning.” Biden’s strategy for schools would mean getting the majority of K-8 schools reopened in his first 100 days. All other grades would follow after.
    • Biden plans to demand that Congress gives $130 billion to fund schools, $350 billion to avoid school layoffs and “close budget gaps,” $35 billion to higher education, $25 billion in emergency funding to child care providers, and $15 billion “to help families struggling to afford child care.” In the first national COVID relief package that Congress passed in March, K-12 education was given $13.2 billion. In the latest COVID-19 relief package, passed in December, schools were promised another $82 billion, including $54.3 billion for K-12 schools.
  • Require a report to the President on the impact of COVID-19 on student outcomes in school.
  • Encourage the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to increase connectivity for kids who don’t have good access to broadband internet and had a hard time going to online school. State governments like Wisconsin’s, along with private companies have already been working to meet this need since national lockdowns began last year.
  • Create a Pandemic Testing Board that will expand the nationwide testing effort. Wisconsin alone has gone from a testing capacity of 120 COVID-19 tests per day at the beginning of March 2020, to nearly 60,000 tests per day today. Last year, Wisconsin public health experts urged Wisconsinites to get tested, specifically because there were not enough people getting tested every day to fill up daily testing capacity. If there are not enough people feeling so ill that they think they need to get tested right now, do we really need to expand the testing effort?
  • Create the “U.S. Public Health Job Corps,” a national workforce program to look for barriers to recruiting new healthcare workers, and to drum up more healthcare workers and contact tracers. The program would train people for public health and healthcare jobs and would administer vaccine clinics across the US. The Trump Administration and state public health departments have already put in great effort and spent a lot of taxpayer money to expand healthcare worker and contact tracer recruitment in every state. It is unclear how this effort will be different or produce better results.
  • Mandate new nationwide studies to discover more therapeutics and treatments for COVID-19 and to develop treatments for future biological threats. This is a rehash of President Trump’s highly successful Operation Warp Speed (OWS), which played an integral role in doing what the media thought was impossible: developing several COVID-19 vaccines in less than 1 year. OWS also accelerated nationwide investigation in therapeutics and treatments for the virus. The private sector has also taken a large role in research and treatment development for the virus, without Federal government management, because there is a need for this type of research. Is a government mandate really needed?
  • Review the nation’s production capability and stockpile of medical emergency equipment and revise Federal plans to expand market capacity in order to speed up production of medical tools for the national virus response. The Trump Administration has already made great strides in this area, notably working with over 150 private companies to help meet national demand for medical equipment after the U.S.’s Strategic National Stockpile was depleted following the H1N1 pandemic.
  • Consider using the Defense Production Act, which allows the President to force private companies to prioritize government orders, incentivize the production of certain goods, and ignore certain antitrust laws in order for private companies to work together on production. Although the initial discovery of COVID-19 in the U.S. resulted in production and supply chain issues, the private sector has worked hard throughout the pandemic to successfully meet demands for various products and supplies today. Early examples of this include breweries and distilleries switching from beverage production to hand sanitizer production, and companies that handle textiles switching from their main products over to face mask production.
  • Research and find ways to prevent future supply chain failures in case of another public health emergency. This also involves developing global emergency supply chain plans for international purchases. We wonder if this type of study will result in dangerous, stricter government control of the free market supply chain.
  • Restart coordination with the World Health Organization (WHO). Biden’s order would have the US work on the global effort to address COVID-19 worldwide, which includes reassessing if the US has money to help with international operations. The order does not specify how much resources Biden intends to take away from the American people and contribute to other nations’ COVID-19 responses. Biden’s EO says the U.S. will consider a plan to send “surplus” COVID-19 vaccines to a COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) Facility and to “countries in need” once the U.S. has a “sufficient supply” of vaccines. We are unsure what exactly constitutes “sufficient supply” and when President Biden intends to donate vaccines abroad.
  • Create a position for a Coordinator of the COVID-19 Response. The coordinator will counsel the President on everything COVID-19 and will oversee the entire Federal pandemic response, including communication with state and local governments, facilitation of the continued rollout of vaccines, and expansion of COVID testing nationwide. The Coordinator’s first priority, however, is “coordinating a Government-wide effort to reduce disparities in the response, care, and treatment of COVID-19, including racial and ethnic disparities.”
  • Make changes to the global supply chain for pandemics, modernize global early warning systems for biological threats, create plans to prevent future “deliberate or accidental biological events,” and fight “climate change as a driver of health threats.” It’s unclear how climate change is related to this initiative.
  • Authorize the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to fully fund the deployment of National Guard troops by state governors for state COVID-19 response efforts.
  • Authorize FEMA to expedite compensation to state and local governments for the cost of their virus plans and plans to reopen their states (see what costs FEMA is allowed to cover here).
  • Restore the Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense at the National Security Council, a team that had been created by the Obama administration, but was disbanded by the Trump administration in 2017.
Follow The MacIver Institute for future updates and analyses of these orders and more.